New VOD Releases: Dark Encounter (2019) - Reviewed

It's very rare that a film can manage to capture that special Spielberg-ian quality, not so much his ability to create a sense of wonder, but the effortlessness in which he portrays the family dynamic. It's thrilling when something can come along and spark those feelings and I'm happy to report that Dark Encounter from writer/director Carl Strathie gets about as close to that mark as one can.

Set in rural Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Dark Encounter follows a family who, a year after their daughter has gone missing, experience a supernatural event the night after her memorial. What follows will irreparably change their family in ways that are almost unfathomable.  

Immediately, it feels almost hacky to compare this to Spielberg. The man redefined genre filmmaking and it becomes a bit tiresome when any movie set in the 80s with supernatural elements is compared to his work. Here, though, it's apt in ways that most aren't. And it isn't because of the genre-y stuff going on, not really. Strathie's depiction of this family is so lived in, so humane and honest, and ultimately, it's what lets the film stand on firm enough ground for you to buy in to everything else. The supernatural element is secondary, it's the family that you're invested in. Strathie nails all the small interactions, the conversations around the dinner table, everything. His placement always forces your eyes to wander around the room and lose yourself within the family. Someone sitting in a chair over here, someone standing in a corner sipping out of a glass. It's the kind of warmth that will send you back to family gatherings of your own, the nostalgia not coming from films you remember from your youth but the memories made with family. It's a stunning, confident portrayal of familial bonds, the ones we verbalize and the ones we keep tucked away. 

Strathie's direction is so impressive that he handles the turn into the supernatural with ease. After a warm, breezy first act that lets us fall into this family, strange bright lights come crashing down in the woods. From the immersive warmth of the family, Strathie thrusts into a home invasion thriller. Whatever has landed is now trying to get into to the house. The effortlessness in which he transitions his film from a somber, familial drama to this is stunning. Most of the middle act of the film is done in striking, silent movements as bright, blue lights fill the house and members of the family start to disappear. You forget to breathe at times because it becomes so unbearably tense waiting to see what's on the other side of that door. The cast sells this remarkably with help from excellent reaction shots. Again, I'm making bad Spielberg comparisons but it can't be helped. The master of the reaction shot would be proud. By being so committed to his people, he lets us feel and breathe with them, and by extension the movie.

Now, where the film loses me a bit is what's on the other side of that door and where the film goes with that. Your mileage may vary on how you handle the reveal. It's going to be an either or situation for a lot of people. You're either going to totally buy into it or be appalled by it. I'm finding myself somewhere in the middle with it, leaning more towards positive. I can't and won't spoil it here but what I will say is that Strathie does more than enough leg work for it to not land with a thud. At least on my end. Simply in letting us live with this family for a bit and then through thrusting us into the horror with them, the payoff doesn't feel as clunky as it probably should have. Bonus points come from the vessel in which Strathie presents the reveal. It's hard to talk about without really talking about it so let's just say, I think Strathie is walking on uneven ground but continuously finds his footing when most people would stumble.

Dark Encounter is a surprising and assured effort from Carl Strathie. It's rare to find such a humane depiction of people in a sci-fi film but that's exactly what this is. Whatever feelings one has about the reveals or the CG or any of the more peripheral elements, wash away with the character work that's done here. Never over written, never melodramatic, the film lets its actors do the work through positioning, body language and facial expressions. It's a smart take on well worn tropes that goes in unexpected directions. If nothing else, if you're like me and have felt a disconnection to your family as you grow older, this will bring back some of those feelings of connection. The good, the bad, the unspoken and rapport that you fall into upon seeing one another. Even with the horrifying places the film goes, it never loses its love for strength through family, especially at their lowest moments. 

-Brandon Streussnig